Democ­racy threat­ens to sun­set in Cen­tral Europe

In Poland, Ro­ma­nia and Hun­gary, the rule of law is in dan­ger­ous re­treat.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

AS POP­ULIST po­lit­i­cal par­ties ad­vance their agen­das in Poland, Hun­gary and Ro­ma­nia, plu­ral­ist demo­cratic norms are be­ing sub­verted, and a slide to­ward au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is giv­ing way to in­cip­i­ent au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. The as­sault is fo­cused on the rule of law and its guar­an­tor, an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary.

In Poland, the rul­ing Law and Jus­tice party, hav­ing al­ready taken con­trol of the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tional court and lower tri­bunals, has now moved to purge the Supreme Court, the fi­nal ar­biter of civil and crim­i­nal cases as well as of elec­tion re­sults. New rules man­dat­ing younger re­tire­ment ages would force out 27 of the court’s 72 jus­tices, though some, in­clud­ing Chief Jus­tice Mal­go­rzata Gers­dorf , are refusing to sub­mit.

The roll­back of Poland’s in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary is the lat­est move re­flect­ing the party’s overt con­tempt for Western prin­ci­ples of lib­eral democ­racy. In re­sponse, the Euro­pean Union has em­barked on a dis­ci­plinary process, but, shielded in the process by a sim­i­larly au­to­cratic regime in Hun­gary, Poland is un­likely to suf­fer the pain of real sanc­tions. “This is the path of civil war,” warned Lech Walesa, the la­bor leader whose Sol­i­dar­ity move­ment was in­stru­men­tal in over­throw­ing Poland’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in the 1980s.

In Ro­ma­nia, where the gov­ern­ing So­cial Demo­cratic party’s leader has been twice con­victed on abuses in of­fice, the party has struck back by at­tempt­ing to wa­ter down anti-cor­rup­tion laws. That rep­re­sents a sharp blow to a decade of ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tions of graft in that coun­try, where it thrived for two decades fol­low­ing com­mu­nism’s col­lapse.

The party leader, Liviu Drag­nea, who has been con­victed of elec­toral fraud and abuse of of­fice — the lat­ter for main­tain­ing two party mem­bers on the pub­lic pay­roll for seven years even though they did noth­ing in the way of gov­ern­ment work — has taken refuge from the scan­dals in the way scoundrels of­ten do: by por­tray­ing him­self as a vic­tim. At­tack­ing the ju­di­ciary as a “par­al­lel state,” he main­tains that dark forces are ar­rayed against him; his al­lies, tak­ing their cue from Pres­i­dent Trump, liken Mr. Drag­nea’s sup­posed per­se­cu­tion to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sia’s role in Mr. Trump’s vic­tory.

Anti-demo­cratic forces in both coun­tries are em­bold­ened by Hun­gary, which, de­spite be­ing con­sid­er­ably smaller than ei­ther of them, has thumbed its nose at the E.U. even as it turns away from democ­racy. Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban, in power since 2010, has si­lenced the in­de­pen­dent me­dia, bul­lied op­po­nents, vil­i­fied im­mi­grants and railed against in­sti­tu­tions that have failed to salute him. To date, the E.U. has de­vised no ef­fec­tive re­sponse to those af­fronts to its val­ues, although E.U. sub­si­dies but­tress Hun­gary’s econ­omy, as they do Poland’s and Ro­ma­nia’s.

Demo­cratic forces in all three coun­tries are fight­ing back, refusing to ac­qui­esce in the re­vival of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in a re­gion whose ex­pe­ri­ence of it was all too re­cent. Their courage is in­spir­ing, but they de­serve bet­ter than Wash­ing­ton’s in­dif­fer­ence and Brus­sels’s im­po­tence.

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